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Penguins continue to be at risk from habitat degradation

14 August 2014


A major study of different penguin species, by a group of 49 internationally renowned scientists, including the Department of Environmental Affairs’ Dr Rob Crawford, has found that birds are at continuing risk from habitat degradation, and recommends the establishment of more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to help mitigate against a range of effects including: food scarcity (where fisheries compete for the same resources), being caught in fishing nets, oil pollution and climate change.

Populations of many penguin species have declined substantially over the past two decades. In 2013, eleven species were listed as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), two as “near threatened” and five as “of least concern”. In order to understand how they might respond to further human impacts on the world’s oceans the scientists examined all eighteen species by looking at different factors where human activity might interfere with their populations.

The study considered all the main factors affecting penguin populations including: terrestrial habitat degradation, marine pollution, fisheries by catch and resource competition, environmental variability, climate change and toxic algal poisoning and disease. The group concluded that habitat loss, pollution, and fishing remain the primary concerns.

They report that the future resilience of penguin populations to climate change impacts will almost certainly depend upon addressing current threats to existing habitat degradation on land and at sea.

The study further notes that protection of penguin habitats is crucial for their future survival. This could be in the form of appropriately scaled marine reserves, including some in the High Seas, in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Dr Phil Trathan, Head of Conservation Biology at the British Antarctic Survey and the lead author of the study, said: “Penguins and humans often compete for the same food, and some of our other actions also impinge upon penguins".

Our research highlights some of the issues of conservation and how we might protect biodiversity and the functioning of marine ecosystems. Whilst it is possible to design and implement large-scale marine conservation reserves it is not always practical or politically feasible. However, there are other ecosystem-based management methods that can help maintain biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem.

For example, the use of spatial zoning to reduce the overlap of fisheries, oil rigs and shipping lanes with areas of the ocean used by penguins; the use of appropriate fishing methods to reduce the accidental bycatch of penguins and other species; and, the use of ecologically based fisheries harvesting rules to limit the allowable catches taken by fishermen, particularly where they target species that are also food for penguins.”

The scientists believe their work will be of benefit to other studies of animal species, not just in the southern hemisphere, but the northern one too where human impacts on the environment is even greater.

There is one species of penguin in Africa – the African penguin, which breeds only in South Africa and Namibia and is classified as globally endangered. The South African population of this penguin has decreased by 65% since 2001, especially along the west coast where sardine, a favoured prey item, has recently been scarce. The bulk of the South African population now resides in Algoa Bay. Four species of penguin (king, Gentoo, macaroni and southern rockhopper) breed at South Africa’s sub-Antarctic Prince Edward Islands in the south-west Indian Ocean.

They have all been classified as Vulnerable or Endangered in a recent regional assessment conducted by BirdLife South Africa. In the last two decades Gentoo penguins have decreased by 52% at Marion Island (one of the Prince Edward Islands), macaroni penguins by 33% and southern rockhopper penguins by 68%. Scarcity of food is thought to have played a major role in the decreases of Gentoo and southern rockhopper penguins, whereas macaroni penguins suffered substantial mortality from disease.

The world’s largest penguin, the emperor penguin, breeds near South Africa’s base in Antarctica. Based on models of changes in climate parameters of the Southern Ocean, it has been predicted that colonies of emperor penguins at latitudes north of South Africa’s base are likely to experience decreases within the next several decades.

Issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs in collaboration with British Antarctic Survey Press Office.

Notes for editors

The paper: Pollution, Habitat Loss, Fishing and Climate Change as Critical Threats to Penguinsby Phil Trathan, Pablo García-Borboroglu, Dee Boersma, Charles-André Bost, Robert Crawford, Glenn Crossin, Richard Cuthbert, Peter Dann, Lloyd Spencer Davis, Santiago De La Puente, Ursula Ellenberg, Heather Lynch, Thomas Mattern, Klemens Pϋtz, Philip Seddon, Wayne Trivelpiece and Barbara Wienecke was published in Conservation Biology in August 2014.

All 18 species of penguin were studied;

Emperor and Adelie (Antarctica), King, Chinstrap, Gentoo, Macaroni, Royal, Southern Rockhopper, Northern Rockhopper (Sub-Antarctic), Little, Fiordland, Snares, Erect-crested, Yellow-eyed (Oceania), and African, Magellanic, Humboldt and Galapágos (Africa and South America).

Each assessment of a species’ status was subjected to independent peer review. The scientists then developed a scale for estimating risk factors.

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are zones of the sea or ocean where wildlife is protected from damage or disturbance.  They can be established along coastlines or in the open ocean.

The Department of Environmental Affairs in collaboration with NGOs such as BirdLife South Africa and universities, conducts research and monitoring of penguins in South Africa and at its Prince Edward Islands and hopes soon to do so in Antarctica. It contributes information on penguins to the CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring Programme (CEMP). CCAMLR (Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) is a treaty to which South Africa is a party.

The Prince Edward Islands fall within the jurisdictional zone of CCAMLR. In 2013, South Africa proclaimed the Prince Edward Islands Marine Protected Area around its Prince Edward Islands.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a component of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know-how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs.

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